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The Kindness Code
Wind in our faces, the ferry plowed through the white-capped waves of Vineyard Sound to an island that I’d never forgotten. Seagulls swooped, large swells rocked the boat, and fishing craft headed for the port as the sun sank lower in the sky. As we got nearer to Martha’s Vineyard, houses, beaches, bayberry patches, and bluffs appeared. I remembered my first trip to this magical shore as a teen; after a bus from the city dropped me off unceremoniously at the ferry boat pier we’d just left. The kindness of strangers guided me to the right ferry and I got to my destination. Years later my husband and I spent our honeymoon on the Vineyard at the invitation of an old friend, whom we were going to visit. Another kindness bestowed.
In our senior year of high school, my best friend moved to Martha’s Vineyard. So, in the summer between high school and college, I appeared on the island, working and living with my friend’s family. It was kind of them to put me up for a whole summer, but as I was beginning my own journey away from my own family, it was fortuitous for me. Now so many years later, looking forward to seeing my friend again after so many years, I was reminded of all my travels, adventures, and challenges, of being lost then found, and the kindness of friends, family, and even strangers on my journey.
The ferry chugged through the inlet and into the harbor and went straight to the dock. In what seemed to be minutes our cars raced to get off, driving through streets I vaguely remembered, with more restaurants, cafes, and tourist shops than I ever imagined. Treelined streets wound through clapboard houses and Cape Cod cottages, surrounded by hydrangeas in bloom, giving way to farms and fields and stone walls as we drove up island.
My good friend from so many years ago now lives full-time on the Island. When younger, she’d taken her own journey to New York and San Francisco and Phoenix and Miami. When her mother needed her, almost 30 years ago, she came back to the Vineyard to take care of her mom and run the family business. After her mom passed she stayed on, creating a life, working to keep the business going, then looking after a brother and nephews as well. Her life had been shaped over the past few decades by caregiving and working. Generous and giving, she practiced kindness.
We drove up to her place and there she was, waving and happy and at peace. Everything was as I remembered, only better. For days we wandered through our old haunts, hiked through woods and down bluffs to sandy beaches, and marveled at the conservation efforts islanders have worked on with trees, wetlands, bogs, and beaches. Practicing environmental kindness. Conscious of the land and the sea and the riches they brought for inhabitants who over the years did whaling, lobstering, farming, sheepherding, and now tourism. Conscious as well of the danger the ocean can confer with storms and hurricanes and stories of shipwrecks and loved ones lost at sea.
The Island was as I’ve always experienced it. The horizon is a blue line in the distance, everything quiet and peaceful, a respite from the clamor of high-paced cities, jobs, and uncertain outcomes in politically fraught times. I recalled a summer long ago when we sought out beach parties and bonfires after long hours of working as busgirls at local restaurants, all energy, and enthusiasm, unwilling to miss out on the fun of being young. Now we went out to restaurants and visited an arboretum and watched the boats sailing into the harbor at sunset.
One evening we ate a delicious dinner in an upscale restaurant packed with islanders and tourists. The weather was warm and summerlike with very little wind. Going down to the dock after the meal, to watch the ferry come in, we saw a small close-to-the-ground creature scurrying up the street by the elegant shops and gussied-up colonial houses. We noticed people holding their noses and letting it go by. It was neither a cat nor a dog. It was a skunk. People were laughing and pointing. But no one chased it or harmed it. They just let it do its thing, practicing the code of kindness, for a sentient being needing its space, doing what skunks do to survive.
But maybe Martha’s Vineyard isn’t really isolated from current reality. Ten days before we arrived, 50 Venezuelan refugees, in a widely publicized story, appeared on the island. And how did the residents of Martha’s Vineyard respond? The spontaneous outpouring of support for the stranded refugees was overwhelming. Everyone helped. Food, clothes, health care, lodging, and transportation were donated to such a degree that people were asked to hold off. Agencies, businesses, nonprofits, churches, and voluntary groups pitched in. Local schools invited the children to visit. The refugees were overcome with gratitude for the generosity and kindness bestowed. The kindness code in action. A core ethos, the only way to be.